For their own reasons, Israelis and Palestinians have traditionally been leery of involving the United Nations Security Council in mediating their long-running conflict. Now, though, after seven weeks of fighting in Gaza that has produced little other than death, misery, and destruction, that body represents the best hope for the two sides to achieve both their immediate and their long-term aims.
Bringing about a halt to the fighting is urgent for both sides. The Palestinians must put a stop to the horrendous human and material toll they've suffered during the most recent Gaza war. Israelis desperately need help finding an exit strategy from their escalating military operations, which have yet to bring Hamas to heel. Indeed, the rising brutality has only fueled anti-Israeli sentiment across the world: Continued warfare is not just morally unacceptable, but politically unproductive.
Let's hope this latest Egypt-brokered cease-fire holds, but such talks have so far failed to yield a lasting truce. A robust Security Council resolution -- something that European states backed by the U.S. have been discussing since late last week -- stands a much better chance of both making a cease-fire stick over the medium term and setting the stage for a longer-term, credible Arab-Israeli peace process.
Pressure from the Security Council -- where both sides enjoy significant support -- would help Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sell their followers on otherwise difficult concessions. For example, assuming military attacks on both sides do stop, Israel could delay its demand to demilitarize Gaza. The Palestinians could similarly suspend their demand for an operational port and airport.
Working through the UN could also ensure that any cease-fire holds better than previous ones did. The draft resolution proposed by France, Britain and Germany reportedly envisions an international monitoring presence in Gaza, to minimize violations by either party. This missing element was a major reason why previous cease-fires collapsed. If Hamas expects Israel to lift border restrictions on travel and imports, and if Israel expects Hamas to forswear attempts to rearm, U.N. observers trusted by both sides will have to be in place to ensure compliance.
That in turn might finally provide both sides what they most need: an extended period of peace and normalcy. Only if that can be achieved will ordinary Israelis and Palestinians see the virtue in continued engagement and diplomacy. A period of calm would allow for the rebuilding of Gaza. It would strengthen the hands of pragmatists in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and make further concessions more palatable.
Success could even open the door to a new attempt to negotiate a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. The failure of U.S.-mediated talks over the past two decades should prod both sides to reconsider a more multilateral approach, whether through the Security Council or an international conference. The process might be more complex and cumbersome than having John Kerry shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It is also more likely to succeed, since the involvement of powerful backers of both Palestinians and Israelis would help reassure each side that its core concerns will be taken seriously.
Working through the UN would force the various Palestinian factions to come to a common position on peace talks, and would fortify the existing unity government. It would give Israel a chance to engage in indirect diplomacy with Hamas, which is critical for any long-term peace.
Most importantly, such talks would allow for current and longer-term disagreements to be addressed on the basis of international law and conventions, rather than force. Exchanging artillery and tunnel attacks has on the other hand has failed miserably, at a terrible human, material and moral cost to both sides. That should be reason enough to try a different approach.
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